The “yes” inside the “no”

A reflection on Mary’s and Martha’s roles in following Jesus

Abbaye-aux-Dames, Caen. Painting depicting Martha and Mary by Rethou (18th century). France.

5 min read

Many are familiar with the story from the Gospel of Luke: Jesus and his disciples are guests at the home of their friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Mary places herself at Jesus’ feet to listen to his teachings, but distracted Martha complains: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Some read the response of Jesus as almost a rebuke: “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38–42).

Reading this text, one might be tempted to take a side—Martha or Mary—and Mary wins, she has chosen the better part. For those of us stuck with lots of work on our desks, or constantly taking care of other people, and perhaps sometimes feeling a little put upon in the midst of all that, this seems deeply unfair.

We might take some comfort in a sermon from St. Bernard of Clairvaux on this passage (Sermon 3. On Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, ), which is quite sympathetic to busy manifestations of Martha, and what motivates them.

“Look upon worried Martha, look upon Martha upset over many things. I speak of the Apostle, who instructing prelates to worry himself bears the worry of all the Churches. ‘Who is sick,’ he asks, ‘and I am not sick too? Who is scandalized, and I am not burned?’ (2 Cor 9:29)

“Let Martha then receive the Lord into her house—since stewardship of the house has been entrusted to her… Let all her coworkers receive, each according to the nature of their service—let them welcome Christ, let them serve Christ, let them serve him in his members; this one among his sick brothers, that one among the poor, another among guests and pilgrims.”

A welcoming attitude

We know the extraordinary importance of welcome, of hospitality, in the Bible. In fact, we can recall another Lucan use of the word “welcome” in Chapter 19:6–9, when Jesus looked up into the tree and said: “‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.”

An attitude of welcome itself marks a capacity to be received by the Lord: “Today salvation has come to this house.”

We can also situate this passage in the context of what directly precedes it in Chapter 10 of Luke (25–28)—the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer had set out an action plan: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

This is followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan, chock full of examples of the concrete service that embodies love within an expanded understanding of neighbor.

“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.” (Lk 10:34)

The passage ends with an action-oriented punchline: “Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).

Serving and listening

So what might it mean to hold together a capacity to welcome the Lord himself and to respond to the call to concrete service to our neighbors, with the exhortation to stay anchored to the posture of listening to the Lord—the one thing necessary?

It is not that hospitality and service are unimportant. On the contrary, they are essential. But it cannot be the only dimension, it cannot be enough. All of these concrete and material aspects of our service and our commitments should not overshadow our stance of listening to the Word of the Lord, which guides us in how to keep our priorities straight, rooted in a deeper life.

How do I stay at the feet of Jesus, listening to his Word, even in the midst of the active service to which the Lord himself has called me? Or more pointedly, what are the traps into which we tend to fall, the tangles that prevent us from sitting at his feet, notwithstanding the desire to stay there?

I can think of a few that I have experienced in my life:

Sometimes the imbalance emerges from a fear of disappointing others.

It might be exacerbated by the burden of meeting expectations that seem to come with one’s role within work, family, or community settings.

It could also be that a certain exhaustion or aridity makes it difficult to quiet down enough to hear the Lord’s voice—so the busy-ness is a kind of escape from that deeper work.

Looking at the bigger picture

Two very simple images might help with discernment when we meet these kinds of challenges. The first is a frame that could be described as “the yes inside the no.”

At first glance, the effort to set aside the time that I need to experience intimacy with the Lord, to stay anchored to his Word for my life and my service, might feel like a “no”—to new projects, an additional trip or commitment, expanding my work, and so on.

But what happens when I frame that work as a deeper “yes”—to the “better part,” to the healthy habits that will keep me able, within my limits, to continue to serve?  

Some questions could be helpful to understand necessary steps to take:

What changes in my schedule or my habits will help to substantiate my deeper “yes” to the Lord? How might I frame the necessary “no’s” within the context of a deeper yes?

How healthy is my alarm system for when the overcommitted seeming “yes’s” are actually becoming a “no” to spiritually and physically healthy choices?

A second image that comes to mind points toward our relationships with each other, as members of the Body of Christ. We can see ourselves as living tiles of a mosaic, different, but all contributing in a variety of ways to the life of the community.  With increased awareness of

my own contributions, and those of others, I might even ask myself: how much room do

I leave for others to give their full contribution to our shared work—and how do I celebrate the contribution and beauty of those around me?

Discerning the “yes” inside the “no,” and seeing everyone’s contributions as part of a shared vision of commitment, can help to sustain a peaceful acceptance of limits—our own, and those of others, and to appreciate the gifts that many can bring to the shared work of service.


Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.

Amy Uelmen is the Director for Mission & Ministry at Georgetown University Law Center and a Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.